For Island students, it’s hands-on marine science

BEVERLEA WALZ PHOTO | Budding scientist Melissa Frasco, 15, a sophomore at Shelter Island High School taking water samples for a study of the the Peconic Estuary last week.
Budding scientist Melissa Frasco, 15, a sophomore at Shelter Island High School, taking water samples last week in Mashomack for a study of the  Peconic Estuary.

Just how healthy is the Peconic Estuary?

That’s what close to 20 Shelter Island students set out to discover last week. Ranging in age from 12 to 18, they don’t yet have answers since their data will be compared with that of students from other districts involved in the “Day in the Life of Peconic Estuary” program.

While the younger students gathered water and fish samples near shore in Mashomack Preserve’s Bass Creek on the raw, blustery morning of October 1, the older students in rubberized suits trekked further out into West Neck Harbor for samples.

For the younger scientists — all honors students — their work was largely in a wind-protected area of Mashomack Preserve where temperatures kept them comfortably warm most of the day. But the older students at West Neck — marine science students and members of the school Science Club ­— managed to get wet and cold. Most took turns warming themselves in teacher Dan Williams’ car, while he worried that his gasoline level was so low he might not be able to make the trip back to school later. Not a problem.

The 11 young honors students divided themselves into three groups — one concentrating on water chemistry, another on weather and soils and the third on biological surveys.

In all, the “Day In the Life” program involves three days of field studies by more than 1,000 students in 27 school districts collecting data in the Carmans River, Nissequoque River and Peconic Estuary, and then uploading their findings so it can be further compared and analyzed by experts.

Working with Cindy Belt, Nature Conservancy’s Mashomack Preserve staffer, the biological survey group made its way across a narrow bridge at Mashomack Preserve to gather fish samples from near shore.

Most found minnows, but there were also a few small crabs and a large clam. They separated their findings into several seawater filled containers for later study.

Young Walter Richards said he choose to work with the biological group for one simple reason: “I wanted to get wet.”

Mission accomplished.

“Don’t die on me,” Liam Adipietro, 12, begged the fish transferred from a bucket into separate containers.

The oxygen in the water at Bass Creek is at a healthy, high level the students found working with Julie Nace, an environmental analyst and Peconic Estuary program coordinator. Will their information hold up as more sampling is done by other students at different points along the Peconic Estuary? That remains to be seen.

But Daniel Martin, 12, thought the hands-on exploration of the chemical content in the water was interesting. He and others were using test strips similar to those that pool owners use to determine the levels of chemicals — in this case, nitrogen and phosphorus. They were also looking at water temperature.

At this time of year, water and air temperatures are very close, Ms. Nace said.

The third group of honors students, working with teacher Sharon Gibbs, had a deep agenda. They were tracking birds, plants and indirect evidence — that would be footprints and animal excrement — of wildlife such as raccoons, and gathering information on tides. They were also collecting samples of soil and rocks in the area.

Emma Gallagher, Amanda Clark, Abby Kotula and Lauren Gurney, all 12, admitted they chose that group because they’re friends and wanted to work together.

While these young honors students were busy at Bass Creek, the older students chose sites along West Neck Harbor where they were doing similar gathering of water and plant samples and evidence of birds and wildlife.

They did use their cellphones to take pictures along the way. And Elizabeth Dunning, 16, provided sketches of the sites.

Interestingly, the older students found a single jellyfish, although Ms. Belt had said earlier that most are gone by this late in the season. Sophomore Sophia Strauss, 15, said the jellyfish had been picked up in a seine net dragged through the water. The students scooped up a number of microorganisms with the seine, noted 15-year-old Olivia Yeaman.

The wind chill was the tough part, said 16-year-old sophomore Zoey Bolton.

The students had high praise for Mr. Williams. Thanks to various projects he has initiated, the students said he sparked and maintained their interest in science. Irene Fisher of the United States Geological Survey, who worked with the older students, credited her days in Mr. Williams’ class as leading her into a science-based career.

The program is “significant” in highlighting the critical relationship among the various bodies of water in the “integral role in the overall ecological health and integrity of this region, said Peter Scully, a Department of Environmental Conservation regional director and chairman of the Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning and Policy Commission.

What brought Shelter Island into the program was Ms. Gibbs’ meeting Ms. Nace and Dr. Melvyn Morris of BNL in the course of organizing the school’s science fair last year.

Ms. Gibbs went on to take a training class through Brookhaven National Laboratory’s Open Space Stewardship Program and the Group for the East End.

“This entire program is a great example of collaboration and citizen science in action,” Ms. Gibbs said.